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Class of 2014: Zemenfes optimizes his WHS experience

Desaleyn "D" Zemenfes stands by the lockers at Worthington High School. (Brian Korthals/Daily Globe)

This is the first story in a four-part series profiling senior students at Worthington High School. The next story will run in March.

WORTHINGTON —  Desaleyn “D” Zemenfes is not a young man of leisure.

While his fellow Worthington High School students are still slumbering away in their beds, Zemenfes puts in an hour of work at a local grocery store before school starts and sandwiches other working hours between his schoolwork and other activities.

He’s currently taking classes at both Minnesota West Community and Technical College and Worthington High School, is president of the WHS FFA chapter and chief programmer for the school’s robotic team, participates in a couple of youth volunteer efforts and is preparing for the upcoming track season.

When the odd moment of spare time does present itself — generally on a Sunday — he chooses to spend it at home with his father and sister. His dad works nights, so their paths don’t cross much otherwise.

“We have traditional food we eat, talk about different things,” he said. “I usually do some translation for my dad.”

A native of Ethiopia, Zemenfes, now 19, came to the United States about five years ago with his younger sister, Netsanet, to join their father, who is employed at JBS in Worthington. The rest of the family remains in their African homeland. When he first arrived here, Zemenfes spoke no English, but he resolved to conquer the language and make the most of the opportunities available to him in the United States.

“I got used to so many things,” explained Zemenfes about his integration into life in southwest Minnesota. “I got used to the weather. I learned to speak English. I got used to it all with the help of my friends, family, my dad.”

Zemenfes’ day generally begins before the crack of dawn, with that early morning stint in the Hy-Vee bakery department.

“I go in almost every morning at 5:30,” he explained. “I stock the bakery products. Some days I do the baked goods, some days the frozen items, like the ice cream cakes. … I got used to getting up early, and seeing my dad, how he works hard — it’s not that bad. It’s just for an hour.”

Originally hired as a courtesy service worker, Zemenfes now spends most of his time in the bakery, working additional hours after school and on weekends.

“I package different breads,” he said about his duties. “I don’t get to make them because I don’t come in early enough. But I wash the dishes, clean up. … I put in 16 to 18 hours a week maybe.”

For his senior year at WHS, Zemenfes chose to participate in the post-secondary education option, which allows him to take classes at Minnesota West’s Worthington campus. The first semester, he had four classes at the college and only one at the high school; for the current semester, he has only one class at the college and three classes at the high school.

“The first semester, I had Micro-Economics, Issues of Environment, American Government and Speech,” he detailed about his challenging schedule. “But American Government and Micro-Economics were online, so they were really flexible — I just had to manage my time, and, of course, homework comes first.”

Currently Zemenfes only has an art course at the college, so he’s seeing more of his high school friends.

“The first semester, I would see my friends, and they would say, ‘Where have you been?’” he recalled.

Not surprisingly, English classes pose the biggest challenges for Zemenfes, while math is his strongest subject. He hopes to use those math skills by looking toward a career in computers — “cyber operations.”

“I applied to Dakota State University,” he explained. “I like their program. It’s a technology-based school and has a program where I can get my master’s degree in five years. I will major in software engineering/computer science.”

Zemenfes also likes the not-too-big size of Madison, S.D., where DSU is based, and the teacher-to-student ratio at the college. He’s already gotten some practical experience in computer trouble-shooting through WHS’ Student Volunteer Services program.

“I’ve been helping the computer techs here,” he said. “I do mostly trouble-shooting, mostly in the library. And every year they clean out the computers, blow out all the dust, so I do that, and whatever else they have for me to do. When they got the new iPads, I helped out with that.”

Zemenfes’ computer expertise also gets a workout on the school’s robotics team, which is currently in the building phrase in preparation for competition in April.

Most of Zemenfes’ school-related activities are things that he believes will give him good skills for the future. He got involved in FFA in eighth grade, following the advice of a teacher.

“I had Mrs. Martin for ag, and she taught us how we should be involved in high school, because it’s not just about agriculture,” he recalled. “It’s leadership and communication. … It’s a great experience being a leader, and it will shape me in my future.”

His main emphasis in FFA has been in the soils competition, determining whether different soils are good for planting, he explained. Last week Zemenfes and some of his fellow FFA’ers traveled to an event in Westbrook, where he was interviewed for his state degree. He feels fortunate to have attended the national FFA convention — an opportunity to meet youths from across the country, “even from Hawaii and Puerto Rico.”

Dynamic 507 and Youth Making Changes  — after-school programs offered through the Nobles County Integration Collaborative — have provided other volunteer and leadership opportunities for Zemenfes.

“Last year I was a lot more involved,” he said, “but during PSEO when I don’t have classes, I still try to help them out.”

An especially proud moment for Zemenfes was getting his driver’s license — something that wouldn’t have been possible in Ethiopia.

“I never thought I’d be driving,” he said with a big grin spreading across his face. “There, maybe I would have been 34 years old before I would get one, and you have to pay so much money for one there.”

Zemenfes has a car to go along with the license —  a necessary source of transportation here to get back and forth from school and work — but also still very much a luxury to him. He doesn’t take any of the opportunities he’s received here for granted and tries to show his appreciation by making the most of all the experiences.

“It just kind of happened,” he said about his various involvements. “I want to do my best. There are so many opportunities here compared to there. And here, one thing I have noticed, there are so many things you get for doing a good job, for getting good grades. It made me work hard and do my best. ... For people who work hard, there is always a dream here.”

With graduation on the horizon, Zemenfes’ dreams for the future have gotten even bigger. When he looks toward a career in cyber operations, he has an ambitious goal in mind.

“It is a competitive field, but when I visited DSU, I asked about job placement, and it’s 100 percent,” he explained. “My dream job would be working for Google, because they do so many different things. Someday, I would like to run Google, become a CEO.”

Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers

 can be reached at 376-7327.

Beth Rickers

Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at  

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